I preached this sermon on Sunday, January 29, 2017. Seven days after the inauguration of Donald Trump. The sermon text was Micah 6:1-8
This is a familiar text. It’s in the Revised Common Lectionary, meaning, it comes around every three years. But this year, I can’t help but think that the Holy Spirit had a hand in placing this particular text on this particular Sunday, one week after this particular president has taken the oath of office. We’re all anxious… we’re all wondering what in the world to do… we’re all worried about the future of our families, our country, of people who need our support. It’s times like these that a deep dive into something familiar can be good… both for affirmation AND (because I’m an Enneagram 8) to challenge us.
Walk Humbly with God
These words have been made into so many bumper stickers and t-shirts and coffee mugs. They show up on 1000s of church mission statements. But as familiar as these words are, what we often miss is that they actually emerged out of God’s deep disappointment with God’s own people.
The book of Micah is really a courtroom drama. And God is bringing charges. The people have forgotten their covenant. They have forgotten
that God loved Israel
brought them out of slavery
gave them a home.
Moreover, the evidence of their amnesia about the covenant relationship with their God seems incontrovertible. Exhibit A: Their treatment of each other, particularly of the most vulnerable in their community. Judah seems to have forgotten that the way they were to remember God is through their treatment of others.
Love for everyone
Freedom from slavery
Homes for everyone
Charged with the responsibility of behaving toward each other the way God behaved through history toward them, they were failing. Miserably. And when Micah spoke, this wasn’t a new teaching. And they knew it. It had been part of the covenant laid out in the Torah – the law of life they were charged to write on their foreheads and on their door posts. These were the laws of Moses which had been part of their way of life since the beginning of their existence as a people. It’s because they knew this, that their failure to live accordingly was especially egregious
So Micah called them out.
He proclaimed to them that in God’s eyes, they were committing ashaq. Now this is an important word, a word that though it doesn’t translate well into contemporary English it ought to resonate with us right now. Ashaq is a way of behaving that is an amalgamation of violence, robbery and enforced poverty. To God’s eye, this is what the power elites in Judah were visiting on the people in their care.
Here’s the scenario. The elite class had succumbed to the enticement of regional capitalism. They saw the great earning potential of newly available trade routes that came as a result of Assyria’s control of the region. This new opportunity created excitement among Judah’s rulers who envisioned the growth of their wealth and power in the region. But in order to accomplish this, they had to figure out how to get farm families to abandon ancient practices that had always contributed to their self- determination and offered them sustainable living. Turning toward trade-oriented cultivation meant these farmers had to take up high-risk mono-crops, increasing the risk of crop failure when routine infestations, blights and droughts occurred. When crops failed, those same farmers had to borrow from the elites at exorbitant rates. At the next round of crop failure, these farmers couldn’t pay their mortgages and the elites foreclosed. This foreclosed property was then consolidated into huge estates while the benefits of trade were hoarded by the elites. And those previously self-sufficient farmers were forced into what amounted to slave labor or displaced off the land altogether.
Again. We need to remember that the leaders of Judah knew what they were doing. And they knew that what they were doing was wrong – unjust – against God’s will. God’s laws specifically prohibited the permanent sale of farmland. God even provided the Jubilee structure that called for letting the land lie fallow every 7 years and every 49 years returning the land to its original owner, freeing slaves, and forgiving debts.
As if that wasn’t enough, at the same time, there was significant corruption in political and religious leaders – the people who should have been holding the elite class accountable. In Micah’s language they were “cannibals who devour the flesh from people’s bones.” Here we find the Hebrew word pashat and it’s horrifying meaning: “to flay.” This was a common terror tactic, frequently used by the Assyrians to discourage rebellion. It is one of the forms of torture used to prevent slaves in this country from running away. Micah pronounces condemnation because the prophets are saying “peace” for those who fill their mouths (aka the power elites) and at the same time condoning the practices of “war” (torture) enacted on those who have no food. As we bring this into the 21st century, we need to see this as an ancient critique on global capitalism, the support structures (and people) around it, the power that is derived from it and the oppression that inevitably accompanies it.
While it might seem surprising that God’s people would so easily forget their covenant, what’s even more surprising is the response of God’s people when Micah points it out. The people who knew better, the people who had been steeped in the practice of jubilee, of justice and righteousness. They respond, not with repentance but with a cynical, perhaps even sarcastic reply: “Look, what more could you possibly want from us? Do you want more sacrifices, more expensive livestock? How about a thousand sheep? Should we sacrifice our own children to appease you?”
Thanks be to God, God is gracious. Because instead of blasting them for their terrible disobedience and their “in your face” sarcasm, God sends a word through Micah, a prophetic utterance meant inspire Judah to see and join God’s vision of a world where justice and equity, merciful treatment of each other and a sense of humility before the creator of the universe form the foundation of their future. God invites them to repent and do the work to make sure that the truth of wholeness (shalom) comes for everyone. And that work looks like this:
Walk Humbly with God
It feels good to hear the first mandate today – Do Justice. Micah calls Judah to return to covenant life – to set up every area of their communal life in alignment with God’s will, and not according to human advantage, personal comfort, or individual desire. The “just” society would be seen when God’s order for equity across all of creation is established as a communal way of life where no one suffers poverty or want.
The third mandate seems like a no-brainer for us: Walk Humbly. Usually we figure if we aren’t full of pride, we can check this box. But there’s so much more than simply being “modest,” “lowly,” or “self– effacing,” though certainly that meaning is included here (especially given Judah’s astounding hubris!). But the meaning of “humbly” here should also be understood as paying attention to God. Walking humbly with God means keeping God’s covenant lifestyle at the center.
It’s that second mandate that gives most of us trouble. Love Mercy. The truth of the matter is, that if our striving for justice and our humility in relationship with each other aren’t undergirded by mercy, it will be impossible to do either of them. This is the part the tripped up Judah and it’s the part that trips us up, too.
Love Mercy. (NB: Some translations suggest “love kindness” or “show lovingkindness”.
The word “mercy” is rooted in the Hebrew word hesed. That little five letter word (three in Hebrew) has big, big, big meaning. And it’s important not to confuse the biblical word with the way it’s carried out in real life. Mercy is never about a power dynamic where someone in power benevolently offers mercy as a gift which may also be indiscriminately withdrawn. The mercy Micah is talking about has nothing to do with a decision by a mighty force to cease and desist violent actions only to take up those same actions whenever provoked. It has everything to do with a mutuality of care and support where power is shared and nobody is in need.
If we are going to love mercy, there are tough questions we have to face.
What does mercy look like when the poor do more than their fair share of caring for the rich? What does it look like when the weak are easily overcome by the powerful? What does mercy mean for oppressed people when power flows to those who have options to act out of their freedom? How can aliens (immigrants, visitors, sojourners) and citizens (Micah’s community and ours) care for each other when xenophobia is connected to economic well-being?
There are no easy answers here. Yet if we don’t confront these questions in ourselves and our spheres of influence, it won’t be possible for us to do justice. Justice will be impossible if we don’t have the willingness to love mercy so much that it infuses every action we take toward one another. If we don’t face these questions as opportunities to confess our missteps and repent, it won’t be possible to walk humbly. True humility doesn’t exist unless we embrace the truth that we participate in unmerciful structures and admit that mercy means NOBODY should be able to “lord it” over ANYONE.
I know a lot of us are anxious… and we think… how can we do more? How can we be effective? But we need to remind each other (and ourselves) that it is always God’s hope – God’s expectation, that when God’s people hear about God’s disappointment, they would repent and mend their ways. God’s words are supposed evoke a more than a confession. God desires more than empty words. God desires justice and mercy and humility. And God will measure how we’re doing by looking at how the most vulnerable among us live. This is work each one of us can do. It is work each one of us MUST do.
Resources for this sermon include:
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. Minor Prophets I (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2012. Kindle Edition.
O’Brien, Julia M. Micah (Wisdom Commentary: Volume 37). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015. Kindle Edition.
Kalu, Ogbu Uke. 1988. “Liberty to the captives: devotional cameos of liberation.” The Journal Of The Interdenominational Theological Center 16, no. 1-2: 192-205. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 30, 2017).
Gilliard, Dominique DuBois. 2013. “Counteracting our privileged readings of the biblical texts.” The Covenant Quarterly 71, no. 1-2: 42-56. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 30, 2017).
Coomber, Matthew J.M. “Micah.” The Prophets (Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha series, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014. Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr., and Matthew J.M. Coomber, volume editors. Kindle Edition.